Bolivia: Salt, Sand, and Altitude Sickness

A sandy motorcycle ride through Bolivia, South America
The border crossing to enter Bolivia is serious. The customs officer checks our passports, insurance, VIN numbers, registration papers, and license plates. Finally we are good to go, heading for La Paz, where we will meet a group of female Bolivian artisans crafting to gain independence.

Crossing the river that divides Argentina and Bolivia, we seem to roll out of a time machine. Garbage is strewn along the road. Stray dogs are everywhere. Street vendors stand in front of concrete buildings filled with vegetables, unrefrigerated meat, and plastic utensils. Women shop for groceries, dressed in several colorful skirts draped over one another, their dark hair worn in two braids with bowler hats on top.

As soon as we leave the city behind, we ascend rapidly, riding our KTM 690 Enduro over mountains buried under trees. For hours we’re accompanied by nothing but a canopy of leaves, arriving in Bolivia, one of the highest countries in the world.

A sandy motorcycle ride through Bolivia, South America
Following in the footsteps of the Che Guevara on Ruta del Che.

Tarija to Tupiza

Today we are riding to Tupiza, a distance of only 200 miles; a tiny route on my map referred to as a “highway in poor condition.” We leave unhurriedly after lunch, not aware that it will take nine hours.

Once out of the city, we find the mountain pass is shrouded in fog. At 13,000 feet I can hardly distinguish the road anymore, let alone the exit. Only after we reach a village can I define our position on the map. Outside of a few cacti and some alpacas, there is nothing here. Early in the evening, we face another 13,000-foot pass in worse than poor condition. We climb a sandy trail that winds steeply along deep gorges. The cliffs are impressive, and without any guardrails we have a clear view of the river that meanders beneath us in the valley. After every curve appears another bend. And another. A truck suddenly turns the corner, claiming every inch of the road, leaving us in a dense cloud of dust on a narrow edge over the abyss. We can hardly ride faster than 20 miles per hour.

A sandy motorcycle ride through Bolivia, South America
At 12,000 feet, Bolivia's administrative capital, La Paz, is one of the highest cities in the world.

Dusk sets in, and we wind across the mountain in complete darkness. No lights, no traffic, no signs, no villages, no gas stations—only a few barking dogs popping up in our headlights, targeting our boots. And stars. Countless stars that we discover when we stop to use our spare jerry cans.

At 10 p.m. we reach Tupiza, having learned one of the most important lessons of map reading in Bolivia: it is not the distance that counts. It’s the altitude. But the high plains have another surprise in store for us.

Motorcycle & Gear

2014 KTM 690 Enduro Rs

Helmets: Schuberth S2, Schuberth C3
Jackets: Lindstrands Qurizo (both)
Pants: Lindstrands Q-Pants (both)
Boots: Difi Enduro Ventura, Lindstrands Champ
Gloves: Lindstrands Dolomit, Halvarssons Origo
Luggage: Ortlieb Rack Packs

Altitude Sickness in Potosí

Coming from the subtropics in Argentina, the sudden altitude of Potosí is too much for my body. Plus, it doesn’t help that I’m Dutch and live below sea level at home. I get a headache like I have never had before. As I lay in bed, Irene takes off to visit the legacy of Potosí: a silver mine. Although there is practically no silver left, many are still used to mine tin.